Archives for April 2019

Psalm 56:1–9; Job 36:1–26; 1 Corinthians 9:1–12a

Originally published 5/1/2017. Revised and updated 4/30/2019.

Psalm 56:1–9: To put it mildly, the preface to this psalm is confusing. Apparently the Hebrew has been mangled somewhere along the line. The NRSV has it as “according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths,” which makes no sense whatever. Alter suggests it’s “the mute dove of distant places,” which certainly sounds more poetic, if not just as mysterious. Our poet, writing in David’s voice, assigns the psalm of supplication to the time when David was seized by the Philistines at Gath.

For me, the mysterious introduction is more interesting than the verses itself, which follow a pretty conventional psalm-of-supplication path. The psalmist describes David’s perilous situation as being under attack by enemies. God is the only one to whom David can turn:
Grant me grace, O God,
for a man tramples me,
all day long the assailant does press me. (2)

As is typical in Hebrew poetry, the verset is repeated as David turns to God:
My attackers trample me all day long,
for many assail me, O High One. (3)

The key message of this stanza comes at the next line as the poet has David steeling his courage because he trusts God completely:
When I fear, I trust in You,
in God, Whose word I praise.
in God I trust, I shall not fear.
What can flesh do to me?
(4, 5)

When we are afraid, our best option is to turn to God in prayer. The lesson is for all of us is really quite simple: trusting in God drives out fear.

Now that trust in God has made him less fearful, our poet’s David has regained his senses and he goes on to describe the proximate cause of that fear, which as always is fear of the conspiracies against him and their attempt to assasinate him:
All day long they put pain in my words,
against me all their plots for evil,
They scheme, they lie low,
they keep at my heels
as they hope for my life.” (6,7)

Our David asks not only for God’s assistance in escaping his enemies but more controversially that God will execute vengeance on them:
For their mischief free me from them.
In wrath bring down peoples, O God.” (8)

After all, he argues before God, that he’s suffered enough already and God should take that suffering and his tears into account:
“…put my tears in Your flask.
Are they not in Your counting?” (9)

Once again we are reminded that under the terms of the Old Covenant it was acceptable to ask God to wreak vengeance against one’s enemies. But Jesus has completely changed the rules of that game.

Job 36:1–26: Apparently Elihu rates the longest speech in this Book of Long Speeches as he continues. Now he exalts the qualities of God, especially God’s intrinsic goodness:
Surely God is mighty and does not despise any;
    he is mighty in strength of understanding.
He does not keep the wicked alive,

    but gives the afflicted their right.
He does not withdraw his eyes from the righteous,
    but with kings on the throne
    he sets them forever, and they are exalted. (5-7)

As usual, as far as sinners are concerned (and very much in keeping with the theology of the psalm above), it’s the straightforward deuteronomic formula. Listen to, and follow God: Good. Disobey God: bad.
If they listen, and serve him,
    they complete their days in prosperity,
    and their years in pleasantness.
But if they do not listen, they shall perish by the sword,

    and die without knowledge. (11-12)

In fact, Elihu continues, suffering is good for you and brings you closer to God—clearly spoken by a man who has not endured much suffering himself:
He delivers the afflicted by their affliction,
    and opens their ear by adversity. (15)

Elihu then goes straight at Job, accusing him of unhealthy obsession and a desire to focus only on the darkness:
But you are obsessed with the case of the wicked;
    judgment and justice seize you.

Do not long for the night,
    when peoples are cut off in their place.” (17, 20)

To be blunt, I think Elihu has a point. But Elihu’s diagnosis of Job’s plight is pretty much the same one as the analysis conveyed by Job’s other friends. Job has committed wrong and is therefore being punished by God:
Beware! Do not turn to iniquity;
    because of that you have been tried by affliction. (21)

Once again, I think Elihu is confusing God’s intentions. He sees God as an active agent demanding justice for sins done by people who seek after evil. But my view is simply that in reality God allows evil to exist on the earth and bad things to happen to good people.

This brings us right back to the great unanswerable question of theodicy: If God is good, why does he allow evil to exist and why do innocent people suffer? Elihu at least offers one explanation, which while true in and of itself, still fails to answer the core question:
Surely God is great, and we do not know him;
    the number of his years is unsearchable. (26)

So, do we just leave it at that? God’s ways are inscrutable? I think if knew the answer we would be setting ourselves up to be equal to God. And then we would have no need of God. Which is exactly where many have gone, be they in Job’s time or in ours. They claim that because bad things happen (people don’t talk much about evil these days), God is either impotent or does not exist at all. It’s much more complicated than that.

1 Corinthians 9:1–12a: Paul seems rather defensive as he defends his bona fides as an apostle and the work he did at Corinth: “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?” (1)

It would be great to know what accusations against him were. We can only surmise that they were written in that lost letter that he received from Corinth, which became the basis of this epistle back to them. That letter must have even included an accusation that Paul was in it just for the money and he was wrong in expecting any payment for his pastoral services: “Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who at any time pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk?” (6,7)

Paul, being Paul, turns to Scripture to buttress his case that he is right to be paid as a workman, even a workman for God: “For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned?” (9) We can see almost bitter sarcasm here as Paul forces them to realize this is a metaphor for human labor. Paul points out that workers for Jesus are to be paid, just as any other worker would be paid as he answers his own rhetorical question: “Or does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was indeed written for our sake, for whoever plows should plow in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop.” (10)

Just to make sure the Corinthians get it, he comes right to the point: “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?” (11) In other words, church people, pay your pastors well! One more  proof of the immutability of human nature. that this problem has persisted through two millennia.


Psalm 55:21–24; Job 34:29–35:16; 1 Corinthians 8

Originally published 4/29/2015. Revised and updated 4/29/2019.

Psalm 55:20–23: Our psalmist relates how his implacable enemy betrayed even his supposed friends:
He reached out his hand against his allies
profaned his own pact. (21).

From our Christian perspective we think immediately of Judas, although the psalmist certainly wasn’t forecasting future events.

Once again, smooth beguiling speech has been the means of betrayal:
His mouth was smoother than butter—
and battle in his heart.
His words were softer than oil,
yet they were drawn swords. (22)

The metaphors of butter, oil juxtaposed against battles and swords perfectly describes a betrayer who seduces and then goes in for the kill. Although the psalmist certainly wasn’t thinking about it, the seduction of women by evil men using smooth talk certainly comes to mind here. As do many politicians.

The poet presents his enemy (and us, I think) with a choice. We can retain our evil ways or we can return to God:
Cast your lot on the Lord,
and He will support you.
He will never let the righteous stumble. (23).

This verse really resonates for me on days when my own faith seems thin. I’ll think this whole God and Jesus thing is really a pointless myth. But then all I have to do is read the news and realize that the alternative—a life that has rejected God is infinitely worse—and lonely. Humankind has truly messed things up; only God can save us from ourselves.

We can decide for God, or we can be left to our grim fate. The psalmist acknowledges that God (not he) is the final judge—even as he wishes the worst for his enemies:
And You, O God, bring them down
to the pit of destruction.
Men of bloodshed and deceit
Will not finish half their days. (24b)

Unlike Job, the psalmist is confident that evil doers will get their just desserts in the end. Personally, I’m torn between Job and our psalmist since evil seems too often to have the victory—at least in the short run. Jesus has it right: love our enemies. It is God’s duty to deal with them. Perhaps even as dramatically as our psalmist desires.

Job 34:29–35:16: Elihu relentlessly continues his theological discourse and delivers perhaps the harshest condemnation against Job that we’ve encountered so far:
Those who have sense will say to me,
    and the wise who hear me will say,
‘Job speaks without knowledge,
    his words are without insight.’
Would that Job were tried to the limit,
    because his answers are those of the wicked.
For he adds rebellion to his sin;
    he claps his hands among us,
 and multiplies his words against God. (34:34-37)

Elihu’s sermon continues on into the next chapter as he basically accuses Job of terminal self-righteousness—that shaking one’s fist at God is a pointless exercise:
If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against him?
And if your transgressions are multiplied, what do you do to him? (35:6).

But along the way, Elihu makes an important point about human relationships. Evil rubs off on others, especially the ones we love:
Your wickedness affects others like you,
and your righteousness, other human beings. (35:8). 

Elihu makes the interesting point that while everyone cries to God for help, they never acknowledge his greatness as Creator:
Because of the multitude of oppressions people cry out;
    they call for help because of the arm of the mighty.
But no one says, ‘Where is God my Maker,
    who gives strength in the night… (35:9, 10)

Unsurprisingly, Elihu offers an explanation for this behavior of humankind. Human pride always gets in the way:
There they cry out, but he does not answer,
    because of the pride of evildoers.
Surely God does not hear an empty cry,

    nor does the Almighty  regard it. (35:12, 13)

Therefore, in the end, Elihu asserts, Job’s railing against God is pointless:
Job opens his mouth in empty talk,
 he multiplies words without knowledge. (35:16) 

Really, Elihu? You say that Job has not been tried to the limit? That he’s just being rebellious against God? That his woes are just empty talk because of his pride? This seems to be a classic case of preaching to someone in whose shoes we have never walked. Elihu has not gone through what Job has experienced; he is looking on from the sidelines.

Elihu is the standin for people who are so much more skilled at philosophical discourse and at giving advice rather than listening. These are the people that are working so hard on what they’re going to say next that they’ve not even heard the person talking to them. Elihu has been silent through 31 chapters, but I’m left with the impression he hasn’t heard a word Job has said.

1 Corinthians 8: Paul takes up a social issue that on its surface is foreign to us: should Christians consume food offered to idols?  Speaking, I think, to mature Christians, Paul points out that “we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” (4) So, for mature Christians, the question is basically moot.

But not every Christian is mature. “It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” (7) In other words, habits acquired in one’s pre-Christian state are difficult to break. Or as Paul puts it, Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” (7)

Which brings us to the key point of the chapter—and which is still enormously relevant to us today in the church: “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (9) It is better to set aside our correct belief and rationalized theology than to inadvertently lead someone else astray. In short, we are to teach and lead by example.

While Paul’s admonition applies to every Christian, I think this raises particularly thorny questions for those in leadership roles to whom others naturally look to as examples of how to lead the Christian life. For example, this is why pastors who engage in legal but questionable financial behavior, or “upstanding Christians” who bring barely-justified lawsuits against others in or out of the church are so injurious to the church at large–and only provide meaty (pun intended) ammunition for those outside the church who believe Christians are the walking examples of hypocrisy.


Psalm 55:16–20; Job 34:1–28; 1 Corinthians 7:25–40

Originally published 4/28/2017. Revised and updated 4/27/2019.

Psalm 55:16–20: Now we come to the imprecation section of this psalm. Our psalmist has been wounded in some way possibly both physically and emotionally. The betrayal by his best friend weighs heavily, as well. So he sets up the usual binary model of evildoers and his wishes regarding their fate, contrasting with his own righteousness and how he himself seeks after God:
May death come upon them.
May they go down to Sheol alive.
Fir n their homes, in their midst, are evils.
But I call to God,
and He hears my voice. (16, 17)

The most interesting part of this section is the psalmist’s apparent self-awareness:
I complain and I moan,
and He hears my voice. (18)

What’s striking here is that God is still listening through our grousing and complaining. We do not have to put on some sort of pious act to get God’s attention. In fact, I dare say God is listening more intently than ever when we are feeling bitter and can only come to him with our woes and our complaints.

Our poet goes on to give God complete credit for his rescue from his enemies:
He has ransomed my life unharmed from my battle,
for many were against me. (19)

Unlike many other psalms of supplication, the poet lists his enemies by name and makes sure we understand that they are apostate and will never turn their hearts to God:
Ishmael and Jalam and the dweller in the east,
who will never change and do not fear God. (20)

Of course, how does he know their hearts? How does he know they will never repent?

Should we be as specific in our own prayers? I’m pretty sure we should not make conclusive judgements such as “who will never change.” Although once again, we need to realize that our poet is writing in a state of intense emotion. I certainly know I’ve made pronouncement like this one when I’m in a state of emotional outrage. Unfortunately, unlike the psalmist, I tend to make judgements about people I love rather than on my enemies.

Job 34:1–28: This chapter is certainly one of the finer statements of theodicy—the problem of why a perfect, righteous God allows evil to exist.

Elihu is not finished with his speech, although he seems to have softened his attitude somewhat toward the people he earlier called stupid: “Hear my words, you wise men.” (2) Or perhaps he is just being sarcastic. He poses the philosophical choice every human must confront:
Let us choose what is right;
    let us determine among ourselves what is good. (4)

He then goes on to forget about choosing and spends his time castigating Job’s declarations of innocence, basically accusing Job of having rejected God altogether:
For [Job] has said, ‘It profits one nothing
    to take delight in God.’ (9)

Elihu’s position is that it is God who is right, not Job. And he has a point… After all, he exclaims it is not God who causes unrighteousness:
far be it from God that he should do wickedness,
and from the Almighty  that he should do wrong. (10)

He then states the deuteronomic quid pro quo that was the basis of Jewish law and the widespread evidence around us that we inevitably reap what we sow:
For according to their deeds he will repay them,
    and according to their ways he will make it befall them.
Of a truth, God will not do wickedly,
    and the Almighty will not pervert justice. (11, 12)

But I think this is where Elihu goes off the tracks. I certainly agree that God is incapable of doing wrong. However, that does not answer the core question of this entire book question about a God who allows wrong to occur—which of course is exactly the deal God reached with Satan concerning Job.

But Elihu forges onward anyway, using an argument based on the logic that God rules all creation and therefore by definition God is just and it is the height of arrogance to accuse God of having caused evil:
Shall one who hates justice govern?
    Will you condemn one who is righteous and mighty, (17)

Moreover, God is all-seeing and therefore cannot not allow evil to fester:
For his eyes are upon the ways of mortals,
    and he sees all their steps.
There is no gloom or deep darkness
    where evildoers may hide themselves.” (21, 22)

God shows no partiality, Elihu continues, and as far as the wicked are concerned. They, including Job, are simply receiving their just desserts:
Thus, knowing their works,
    he overturns them in the night, and they are crushed.
He strikes them for their wickedness
    while others look on.” (26, 27)

Elihu’s unstated conclusion is that there is no question that Job is wicked before God, that he remains in complete denial about that fact, and therefore has deserved the punishment he received. After all, a just God cannot do otherwise. Of course Elihu has no concept of a loving God, only a just God who cannot abide wickedness.

1 Corinthians 7:25–40: Once again, Paul makes it clear that he is expressing his opinion regarding male/female relationships of various kinds. Most famously, he advocates a status quo approach to marriage: “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” (27) Which also makes it clear that bachelor Paul has a rather dim view of the institution of marriage, which to me anyway, seems somewhat contrary to Jesus’ view.

I think it’s also important to realize that Paul was writing in a context that assumed Jesus’ return to earth was imminent and all this relationship business was a temporary situation at best: “in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are.” (26) And, “For the present form of this world is passing away.” (31)

Nevertheless, Paul puts his finger rather precisely on a deep truth regarding marriage: “Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life.” (28) He certainly judges the priorities of unmarried men like himself as over against the concerns of the married man: “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.” (32-34a) Wow. 

As we know, Paul’s own life was not exactly distress-free either. He pretty much sums up his world view at verse 38: “So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.”  And if a woman becomes a widow, she is free to marry again, but as far as Paul is concerned, “in my judgment she is more blessed if she remains as she is.” (40)

Paul’s low view of marriage is one of the animating principles underlying the Roman Catholic view that priests must be celibate. But I also think one should never forget that like Paul, that the advice celibate priests give regarding marriage is based on theory, not experience.

Psalm 55:9–15; Job 32,33; 1 Corinthians 7:17–24

Originally published 4/27/2017. Revised and updated 4/26/2019.

Psalm 55:9–15: Our psalmist asks God to deliver some seriously bad consequences on the evil-doers who have created hate an dissension in the city (Jerusalem?). Once again we encounter the predominance of speech as both the source of wrongdoing as well as the instrument of punishment:
O Master, confound, split their tongue,
for I have seen outrage and strife in the town;
day and night they go round on its walls,
and mischief and misdeeds within it,
disaster within it,
guile and deceit never part from its square. (10-12)

I doubt we could find a more perfect description of the bloviation of politicians and other power-seekers within Washington DC than right here in these trenchant verses.

By this time, the psalmist has regained his personal courage even in the face of all this wrongdoing:
No enemy insults me, that I might bear it,
no foe boasts against me, that I might hide from him. (13)

We then encounter a sudden shift in the psalm’s focus as the poet describes what I take to be a personal betrayal by a former friend. He recalls the far better times of their past relationship:
But you—a man to my measure,
my companion and my familiar,
with whom together we shared sweet counsel,
in  the house of our God in elation we walked. (14, 15)

There’s some ambiguity here. Has this man joined the pack of evil-doers? Or is this recollection simply a non-sequitur stuck in the middle of this psalm? In any event, the psalm does a nice job of describing the conflict between those who do evil and a man who feels betrayed both by the culture at large as well as a particular individual.

Job 32,33: Our author provides some background for the next speech. Elihu is younger than Job and his three friends. And he is having a serious problem with Job’s last speech: “He was angry at Job because he justified himself rather than God; he was angry also at Job’s three friends because they had found no answer, though they had declared Job to be in the wrong.” (32:2,3) But anger trumps politeness as Elihu lets them all have it in his impassioned speech that occupies these two chapters.

Elihu is disillusioned, thinking that age brings wisdom, but concludes after all the other speeches that is certainly not true:
It is not the old  that are wise,
nor the aged that understand what is right. (32:9)

He appears to be addressing the three friends first, dismissing their various empty arguments theorizing about the cause of Job’s suffering, observing that they talked past Job, more interested in elucidating their own beliefs:
I gave you my attention,
but there was in fact no one that confuted Job,
no one among you that answered his words. (32:12)

How often I have done that myself—especially to Susan. I’m more interested in what I have to say rather than listening closely what the other person was saying.

With these preliminaries out of the way, Elihu is ready to offer his own opinion:
I also will give my answer;
    I also will declare my opinion.
For I am full of words;

    the spirit within me constrains me.
My heart is indeed like wine that has no vent;
    like new wineskins, it is ready to burst. (32:17-19)

Job is Elihu’s primary target although he approaches his elder somewhat gingerly:
See, before God I am as you are;
    I too was formed from a piece of clay.
No fear of me need terrify you;
    my pressure will not be heavy on you. (33:6,7)

Elihu opines that Job has set himself up as being equal to God, a position he thoroughly rejects:
But in this you are not right. I will answer you:
    God is greater than any mortal.
Why do you contend against him,
    saying, ‘He will answer none of my words’?” (33:12,13)

He goes on to describe how he believes God warns people through dreams and nightmares (which is not a bad theory):
In a dream, in a vision of the night,
    when deep sleep falls on mortals,
    while they slumber on their beds,
then he opens their ears,

    and terrifies them with warnings,
that he may turn them aside from their deeds,
    and keep them from pride. (33:15-18)

Elihu asserts that pain is another one of God motivational tools to cause people to repent:
They are also chastened with pain upon their beds,
    and with continual strife in their bones, (33:19)

Elihu goes on to point out that when people repent good things happen as,
…then he prays to God, and is accepted by him,
he comes into his presence with joy,
and God repays him for his righteousness.

Which is exactly the approach the Pharisees took in Jesus’ day—and we know how well that didn’t work out.

But Elihu is certainly convinced of his own wisdom and he (rather arrogantly, IMHO) challenges Job:
If you have anything to say, answer me;
    speak, for I desire to justify you.
If not, listen to me;
    be silent, and I will teach you wisdom. (33:32-33)

Really, Elihu? Do you think you are so smart? We’ll see.

1 Corinthians 7:17–24: Paul counsels Christians to accept our circumstances and status as individuals: “let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you.” (17) Not surprisingly, he uses the example of circumcision, which at his time was a major controversy in the young Christian church. His point is simple: it’s too easy to focus on relatively trivial issues when in fact it “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; obeying the commandments of God is everything.” (19)

Paul’s underlying point is that we can be effective Christians whatever our position, even slaves. Should a slave gain his freedom, Paul continues, “make use of your present condition now more than ever.” (21) From a Christian perspective, “a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ.” (22)

While we may have a difficult time dealing with Paul’s slave/free antithesis, it’s clear that for Paul, we are all equal in Christ, regardless of our social status. Unfortunately, this truth is as difficult for us modern Christians to accept as it was for the Corinthians. We see this non-equality on full display in churches where the homeless are less than welcome in worship. The entire point is that it is our relationship with God that matters: “In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters,[b] there remain with God.” (24)

Paul asks us to accept our circumstances. Does this mean that we should not run for Church Council because we’re not a natural leader? Or that we cannot sing in the choir (or play in the band) because we are not professional musicians?  I’m curious to see where Paul takes this argument in the upcoming chapter.

Psalm 55:1–9; Job 31; 1 Corinthians 7:1–16

Originally published 4/26/2017. Revised and updated 4/25/2019.

Psalm 55:1–9: We know instantly this is a psalm of supplication as our psalmist underscores his urgency with a pretty blunt appeal for God to hear him by using a verb to listen in each of the three opening lines:
Hearken, O God, to my prayer,
and do not ignore my plea.
Listen well to me and answer me. (2,3a)

His desperation comes roaring through in a catalog of fears created by the evil that surrounds him, creating a severe physical reaction, even to the point of awaiting death:
In my complaint I sway and moan.
From the sound of the enemy,
from the crushing force of the wicked
when they bring mischief down upon me
and in fury harass me,
my heart quails within me
and death-terrors fall upon me,
fear and trembling enter me,
and horror envelopes me.” (3b-6)

I have never been on a battlefield and have never felt fear as intense as it’s described here. But I have to imagine this is a perfect description of the terror that must envelope a soldier who is under attack and sees death all around him.

And in the midst of that terror he has only one futile wish: escape:
And I say, ‘Would that I had wings like a dove.
I would fly off and find rest. (7)

And if not able to fly away like a dove, then at least to be able to escape to some other place far away from the battlefield, even into desolate wilderness—to be anywhere else than where there is freedom from fear. This is a feeling I know I’ve had:
Look, I would wander far away,
and lodge in the wilderness.
Would make haste to a refuge for me
from the streaming wind and the storm. (8, 9)

What’s important here, I think, is that we can pray to God, even demand that God hears us, when we find ourselves in a desperate situation. To call to God and bluntly tell him our fears is perhaps the most honest prayer of all. Yet we hesitate, afraid to reveal the depth of our fear, preferring to put up a brave front. But remember: God can see right through our brave front and into the depths of our terrorized heart.

Job 31: Job asks the question that is the at the core of theodicy: why does God allow evil not only to exist, but even worse, to allow evil to fall upon the righteous who follow God?
Does not calamity befall the unrighteous,
    and disaster the workers of iniquity?
Does he not see my ways,
    and number all my steps? (3,4)

Like all of us, Job is perfectly content to endure God’s judgement if he has sinned. But if he has been righteous then God is being grossly unfair:
If I have walked with falsehood,
    and my foot has hurried to deceit—
let me be weighed in a just balance,
    and let God know my integrity!— (5,6)

Job catalogs the various sins he could have committed that would indeed deserve God’s harsh judgement, including adultery (9), allowing other men to rape his wife (10), been cruel to his slaves (13), ignored the poor and needy (16-21).

Or, he could have committed the sin we for which we are all guilty: greed and self-centeredness:
If I have made gold my trust,
    or called fine gold my confidence;
if I have rejoiced because my wealth was great,
    or because my hand had gotten much;

and my heart has been secretly enticed,
    and my mouth has kissed my hand;” (24, 25, 27)

Job acknowledges that all these sins deserve God’s judgement:
“…this also would be an iniquity to be punished by the judges,
    for I should have been false to God above. (28)

Job arrives at the climax of his speech as he realizes that God is not only silent, he is not even listening.  In fact, God has been unjust to him and allowed evil to befall him without ever revealing why this has happened:
O that I had one to hear me!
    (Here is my signature! Let the Almighty  answer me!)
    O that I had the indictment written by my adversary! (36)

At some point in our lives, we are Job. We feel God is not only unjust, he is not even listening—that God has acted arbitrarily and cruelly. Job is our voice of desperate frustration at life’s inherent unfairness and cruelty. And it is in God’s silence when we are surrounded by obvious evil  that many abandon faith and belief in a loving God altogether. Can we blame them? Where is God when he allows hundreds of worshippers to be massacred in the middle of an Easter service?

For it is on this pessimistic note of a God who punishes for no reason at all that we read, “The words of Job are ended.” (40) For indeed, there is nothing more to say.

1 Corinthians 7:1–16: Now we come to one of Paul’s more controversial passages: his essay on marriage, which like a Catholic priest, he opines without having had the personal experience. I think Paul’s overarching objective is to somehow halt sexual immorality in the church by reminding people about the rights and duties of marriage, specifically that it is a binding yet reciprocal contract: “But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” (2, 3)

Paul uses the unfortunate word, ‘authority,’ to describe the mutual relationship of giving to each other that is at the center of marriage: “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” (4) I think the term we use today is “mutuality.” Nor should one partner withhold sex from another “except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again.” (5)

There are theories out there that Paul never wrote these words; that they were added by some early church scribe. But I think for better or worse these are truly Paul’s words and that he is saying everything he can think of to crush immorality in the church.

One reason why I think these are Paul’s actual words is that he also makes it clear that this is his opinion, not necessarily a command from God: “This I say by way of concession, not of command.” (6) He goes on to assert—again as his opinion—that widows would be better off not remarrying, unless of course they are “aflame with passion.” [Great phrase!]

He also recommends that divorce is to be avoided, and especially that “that the husband should not divorce his wife.” (11) Or, if the wife separates, she should remain unmarried or try to reconcile with the husband. Unfortunately, IMHO, the Catholic church has turned Paul’s advice into Canon Law that treats divorced persons as unworthy of the sacraments. This is not how I read this passage.

Same goes for the Protestant belief in “unequal marriage” where one spouse is a Christian and the other is not. This has been carried to extremes in some quarters. Many evangelicals are aghast when a son or daughter in the church marries an “unbeliever.” I know that when I married a Catholic woman there were those who thought I was “unequally yoked” because they did not think Catholics were actually Christians.

Paul again makes it clear that all issues relating to marriage are his opinion: “To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.” (12) Besides, there’s a definite upside: “Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife.” (16)

But unfortunately, because they are in the Bible, which many people take absolutely literally, they forget this is Paul’s not necessarily binding advice.  Instead, Paul’s words have too often been taken to extremes and unfair judgement rendered to the advantage of the one (usually the man) with the power in the relationship.

Psalm 54; Job 30; 1 Corinthians 6:9–20

Originally published 4/25/2017. Revised and updated 4/24/2019.

Psalm 54: This psalm refers to the incident recounted in 1 Samuel 23 when David, on the run from Saul, hides among the Ziphites, who promptly betray his whereabouts. Thus, David is in pretty desperate straits. In this psalm of supplication, he prays to the only one who can rescue him:
God, through Your name rescue me,
and through Your might take up my cause. (3)

That David prays for rescue via God’s name reminds us of the power of names, and especially in Israel, where the name of God could not be uttered. Even today, Jews acknowledge the power of God’s name by writing ‘G_d.’

David makes it clear that he is being pursued by those who would do him harm. Moreover, they are God-haters, which he believes is the major reason for their relentless pursuit:
For strangers have risen against me,
and oppressors have sought my life.
They did not set God before them. selah. (5)

The puzzling thing here is that the psalmist has David say ‘strangers’ are pursuing him, when it was Saul, who obviously was no stranger to David. Poetic license, I guess.

As almost always the case in psalms of supplication, David prays with confidence, knowing that God will indeed rescue him:
Look, God is about to help me,
my Master—among those who support me. (6)

As is also almost always the case, the psalmist, still speaking in David’s voice, seeks God’s vengeance on his enemies—remembering always it is God alone who carries out vengeance:
Let Him pay back evil to my assailants.
Demolish then through Your truth. (7)

What a great concept! That enemies would basically self-destruct in the harsh light of God’s truth. This is vengeance I think we can honestly pray for when grievous wrongs have been committed against us or against others: that in the light of God’s truth the wrongdoer would receive his just desserts.

As for David—and for any of us who pray in times of great need—we pray with confidence and recall how many times God has come to our rescue in the past:
From every strait He saved me,
and my eyes see my enemies’ defeat. (9)

I think Jesus has changed the rules when he tells us to love our enemies, but we need to remember that it is in the Psalms where we find deep emotion expressed so freely.

Job 30: Job’s lament continues as he shifts from the fondly nostalgic recollections of his previous life to a stark description of his present state. His world has been turned inside out by forces beyond his control. And because his previous wealth and power has been reduced to rubble, he is mocked by those who once respected him—even those younger than he, which in a patriarchal society is the ultimate sign of disrespect:
But now they make sport of me,
    those who are younger than I,” (1)

Job has been brought so low that even those who are themselves despicable and driven out of respectable society now stand higher in ranking than Job. They, too, mock him. Job is now even less than they:
They are driven out from society;
    people shout after them as after a thief.
A senseless, disreputable brood,
    they have been whipped out of the land.
And now they mock me in song;
    I am a byword to them.
They abhor me, they keep aloof from me;
    they do not hesitate to spit at the sight of me. (5, 8-10)

Job certainly knows the cause of his present circumstance. It is God’s fault (which of course it is):
Because God has loosed my bowstring and humbled me,
    they have cast off restraint in my presence. (11)

Even worse than mockery, these worthless people physically attack him with impunity:
On my right hand the rabble rise up;
    they send me sprawling,
    and build roads for my ruin.
They break up my path,
    they promote my calamity;
    no one restrains them. (12, 13)

Job’s desperation and the sense that he has been utterly abandoned by God leaps off the page:
I cry to you and you do not answer me;
    I stand, and you merely look at me.
You have turned cruel to me;
    with the might of your hand you persecute me.
You lift me up on the wind, you make me ride on it,
    and you toss me about in the roar of the storm. (20-22)

If we ever wanted a template for an angry prayer that shakes our fist at a cruel God, it is right here. Many Christians are afraid to shake their fists at God’s seeming indifference and yes, cruelty, fearing that they would somehow offend God and bring even greater woe crashing down around them. But when God seems to turn his back on us I think Job proves that we can express our anger and desperation with complete freedom. With Job, we can rail at God’s seeming unfairness that reverses everything we know and love:
But when I looked for good, evil came;
    and when I waited for light, darkness came. (26)

1 Corinthians 6:9–20: It seems to me that Paul took some pleasure in his list-making, especially when referring to sins and sinners. Here, he warns the Corinthians that “wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God” (9a) and then proceeds to inventory the many forms of wrongdoing: “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” (9b,10)

But there is always Paul’s observation that these sins are in the past. Now we have been “washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (11) we must abandon them. The logical outcome of this washed and sanctified state we should be paying far closer attention to our personal habits.

However, it is facile to assert that now that we have been justified we can go about our former practices and then, post hoc, just ask for God’s forgiveness. Rather, as Christians, we are to be pure for the simple reason that “your bodies are members of Christ.” (15) If we consort with prostitutes, then “whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her.” (16) [Although Paul here cites the scripture in Genesis,“The two shall be one flesh,” which I always thought referred to marriage.]

In any event, the new reality is that “anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” (17) Therefore, Paul argues—pretty persuasively, I think—that we need to always bear in mind that “that [our] body is a temple  of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own.” (19) Our bodies are a wonderful gift from God, but “you are not your own” implies more that we are renting them from God rather than owning them outright. As ‘renters,’ then, we should treat God’s possession with thoughtful care. Say what you will about our culture’s obsession with health. It is at least a tacit acknowledgement of Paul’s assertion that our bodies are precious gifts.

Nevertheless, I steadfastly refuse to consume kale.

Psalm 53; Job 29; 1 Corinthians 5:9–6:8

Originally published 4/24/2017. Revised and updated 4/23/2019.

Psalm 53: We’ve encountered this pessimistic view of humanity previously in Psalm 14. Our author finds zero redeeming qualities in those who reject belief in God:
The scoundrel has said in his heart,
‘There is not God.’
They corrupt and do loathsome misdeeds.
There is none who does good. (2)

In an echo of the story of Noah, God seeks out one good man, but unlike that story, there is not even one righteous person to be found:
The Lord from the heavens looked down
on the sons of humankind
to see, is there someone discerning,
someone seeking out God. (3)

Alas, the case looks pretty hopeless as the psalmist reiterates the grim findings that no good man can be found:
All are tainted,
one and all are befouled.
There is none who does good.
There is not even one. (4)

Well, we are all certainly sinners, but is all of humanity this corrupt? As the psalmist reflects on this grim reality, we come to realize that he is describing the apostates of Israel who have corrupted the entire society. He employs a simile of bread, which here has a completely opposite meaning of what we think of when Jesus says he is the Bread of Life:
Devourers of my people devoured them like bread.
They did not call on God. (5b)

There is only one possible hope as he concludes on a despairing note:
O, may from Zion come Israel’s rescue
when God restores His people’s condition.
May Jacob exult.
May Israel rejoice. (7)

Our poet could write these words today as we look around at the apparently hopeless condition of the world as it vainly seeks to find peace and justice by substituting small-g gods such as technology and individual liberty for belief in God’s love and mercy.

Only God can resolve the desperate situation that this psalm so tersely and bleakly describes. And he did so through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Job 29: Job comes near to the end of his defense in the face of the accusations and wrong-headed diagnoses of his erstwhile “friends.” There is bitter wistfulness as Job recalls his far happier times when he walked with God:
O that I were as in the months of old,
    as in the days when God watched over me;
when his lamp shone over my head,
    and by his light I walked through darkness;
when I was in my prime,
    when the friendship of God was upon my tent; (2-4)

Back then he was surrounded by his loving children and he was respected by everyone:
the young men saw me and withdrew,
    and the aged rose up and stood;
the nobles refrained from talking,
    and laid their hands on their mouths;
the voices of princes were hushed, (8-10)

Job believed he was the quintessential man of righteousness and justice, and in keeping with the constant refrain of the Old Testament, he was an advocate for the poor and the stranger:
…because I delivered the poor who cried,
    and the orphan who had no helper.
The blessing of the wretched came upon me,
    and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.
I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;

    my justice was like a robe and a turban.
I was eyes to the blind,
    and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy,
    and I championed the cause of the stranger.” (12-16)

Job gets in a nice dig at his inquisitors by noting how in former times when he spoke there were no replies or accusations from know-it-alls such as those he is now enduring. Instead, there was respect and people paid close attention:
They listened to me, and waited,
    and kept silence for my counsel.
After I spoke they did not speak again,
    and my word dropped upon them like dew.” (21, 22)

The chapter concludes with Job’s fond remembrance of being the chief of men—a man of constant encouragement, respected by all:
I smiled on them when they had no confidence;
    and the light of my countenance they did not extinguish.
I chose their way, and sat as chief,
    and I lived like a king among his troops,
    like one who comforts mourners. (25, 26)

The question hangs here: Is Job merely being nostalgic for the good old days? Was he as pure and kind as he portrays himself? Or are his accusers correct?

For me, the challenge of this chapter is to ask myself if, as I grow older,  have I painted my past behavior in rosier terms than what my actions really were? This chapter forces us to think back and realize that remembrance almost always paints a happier picture: we recall the good that we did while we tend to forget the many occasions when we sinned.

1 Corinthians 5:9–6:8: Here, Paul refers to the first letter he wrote to the Corinthians, which is lost: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons.” (9) He makes it clear that he is not referring to the “the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters,” (10) but to sexual immorality and other sins right there in the church at Corinth: “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber.” (11)

Goodness knows we’ve seen plenty of sinning in our own time among those that profess to be Christians, especially erstwhile evangelical leaders and TV personalities. But I also remember a case in the church I grew up in where the choir leader had an affair with a member of the choir.  So, the problem is longstanding and continues simply because we are all sinners.

Paul advises those in the church to “Drive out the wicked person from among you.” (13) There are modern churches where this is still done. But I think there’s a real dilemma here. Do we show grace on the sinner or drive them out for fear of further corrupting the body? Paul is clear about where he stands, but I’m not comfortable with that stance. I think I’d rather err on the side of repentance and grace.

That said, however, there is no question that corruption from within does far greater damage than external forces. One need only look to the Catholic church today as it continues to confront the sexual sins of its pastoral leaders.

Like our modern age here in America, Corinth is a litigious society and lawsuits abound. People in the Corinthian church are taking cases to civil court and this greatly distresses Paul, who believes grievances should be resolved within the church: “When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints?” (6:1) In fact, he is incredulous that resolution cannot be achieved among Christians: “I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer—and before unbelievers at that?” (6:5) In other words, Paul pleads, resolve your disputes among yourselves.

I presume these verses became the inspiration for the development of Canon Law and a means of dispute resolution within the Catholic church. However, we also know that grievous sins such as the scandals of abuse by priests were not resolved within the church and were hidden from public view. I think Paul’s advice is generally sound here, but I assert that there will always be exceptions where the outside world must intervene.

Psalm 52; Job 28; 1 Corinthians 4:16–5:8

Originally published 4/22/2015. Revised and updated 4/22/2019.

Psalm 52: This psalm connects to a specific event in David’s life: “when Doeg the Edomite came and told Saul and said to him, ‘David has come to the house of Achimelech.’” (2) It’s rather unique point of view is as an address to the evil Doeg—or to any wicked person. The poet begins on a remarkably sarcastic note,making it clear that the man he addresses is far from heroic:
Why boast of evil, O hero?
—God’s kindness is all day long. (3)

As usual, the the core sin of this evil man is rooted in speech:
Disasters your tongue devises,
like a well-honed razor, doing deceit. (4)

The evil tongue is the outward manifestation of an inwardly evil heart:
You love evil better than good, 
a lie more than speaking justice. (5)

These accusations are all the more trenchant when we to remember that in this ancient world, the primary form of communication was speech. And the psalmist reminds us that speech has a direct link to a man’s character as he accuses the evildoer:
“You love all destructive words,
the tongue of deceit. (6)

Even though we have multiple forms of communication today that does not mask the fact that in the end, it all comes down to what we say and write.

As a person who writes and speaks a lot, this accusation hits home: that what I say aloud is—as the psalmist has it her—a direct reflection of the attitudes of my heart and of my basic character and how people will judge me. Sarcasm has long been a defense mechanism for me and I have been working to eliminate it in what I say. Words used with evil intent can destroy; even words used carelessly can inflict great harm.

God’s intent for the man who speaks evil is hardly benevolent:
God surely will smash you forever,
sweep you up and tear you from the tent,
root you out of the land of the living. (7)

This is the grim fate of “the man who does not make/ God his stronghold.” (9)

We who follow God, on the other hand, are
like a verdant olive tree
in the house of our God.
” (10a)

And, with the psalmist, we have but one overriding obligations and as always, out of trust in God arises worship: :
I trust in God’s kindness forevermore.
I shall acclaim You forever, for You have acted,
and hope in Your name, for it is good,/ before Your faithful.

Job 28: We suddenly encounter this beautiful poetic interlude that reflects on the nature of wisdom. Unlike many other speeches here, the author credits neither Job nor his friends. It is a peaceful intermezzo in the sturm und drang of the dueling speeches that comprise this remarkable book. It  is also a paean to geologists and miners.

The poem describes the earth as God’s creation, forcing to reflect on how the earth sustains us as well as its intrinsic but often hidden beauty discovered only by miners, who:
…open shafts in a valley away from human habitation;
    they are forgotten by travelers,
    they sway suspended, remote from people.
As for the earth, out of it comes bread;
    but underneath it is turned up as by fire.
Its stones are the place of sapphires,
    and its dust contains gold. (4-6)

The deeps of the earth are unknown by animals. It is the miners, who
put their hand to the flinty rock,
   and overturn mountains by the roots.
They cut out channels in the rocks,
    and their eyes see every precious thing.
(9, 10).

So what is to be found there in this mysterious place besides precious stones? The poet answers with a rhetorical question:
But where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding? (12)

We humans will not stumble across it because it is not to be found within the creation we inhabit—not even under the earth’s visible surface. Wisdom is somewhere else:
Mortals do not know the way to it,
 and it is not found in the land of the living. (13).

Nor can wisdom be purchased:
It cannot be gotten for gold,
 and silver cannot be weighed out as its price. (15)

That inability to buy wisdom is certainly on full display today in our culture. How many stupid things do we witness the rich and powerful doing?

Once again, the poet asks,
Where then does wisdom come from?
And where is the place of understanding? (20).

This time, though, there’s an answer:
God understands the way to it,
 and he knows its place. (23)

It turns out in the last verse that God has actually already told us where wisdom can be found:
And he said to humankind,
‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
    and to depart from evil is understanding.’” (28)

So, the question becomes, why is God the last place we humans actually look for wisdom? Why do we look first for human wisdom, which as Paul has told is is mere foolishness? We are so unwilling to abandon ourselves, who we as the center of the universe, even when God is basically standing before us with the answer to life’s questions..

1 Corinthians 4:16–5:8:  Underneath Paul’s words—“But some of you, thinking that I am not coming to you, have become arrogant.” (18)—we can sense his controlled anger. And his rhetorical question certainly reveals his frustration with the wild talk and cliques that seem to characterize the church at Corinth: “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (4:21)

Given his already bad mood, Paul lights right into them: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife.” (5:1) I guess we can be charitable and assume that “his father’s wife” is not actually his mother. But the church definitely has erred by failing to remove him from the congregation.

Paul’s judgement may seem harsh given our preference for grace, tolerance, and all that. But he does not let them take the easy way out. He states that as founder of the church at Corinth he possess authority and, “as if present I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing.” (5:4).

However, exactly how Paul’s instructions are to be carried out is less clear: “you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (5:5) Does this mean something harsher than being thrown out of the congregation?  Again, I prefer the more charitable explanation.

As far as Paul is concerned, the root cause of this evil is human pride: “Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” (5:6) He makes the crucial psychological insight that like bad yeast, pride infects the entire body. Instead, in one of Paul’s wonderful metaphors, we should throw out the bad and replace it with the good: “Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (5:8)

We see that today in the behavior of mobs incited to outrageous acts by the behavior of just a few. Once this bad yeast is inside a church congregation, it generally rips the congregation apart. Despite Paul’s words, human nature remains unchanged, and we grieve at the terrible witness to the community when churches are torn asunder by envy, pride, and dissension.

Psalm 51:13–19; Job 25–27; 1 Corinthians 4:1–15

Originally published 4/21/2015. Revised and updated 4/20/2019 (Holy Saturday).

Psalm 51:13–19: In the NRSV translation the psalmist pleads, “cast me not from Your presence,” Alter uses a more violent verb, “Do not fling me from Your presence.” (13). The mental state of our poet such that he sees himself as mere garbage that God would roughly toss in the trash heap in order to remove the sinner out of his holy presence. Such is the magnitude of his—and our—sins.

And then an important Trinitarian clue: “and Your holy spirit take not from me.” (13b) We have to remember, however, that the poet sees this as an attribute of God, not as the capitalized third person of the Trinity.

But the psalmist asks for more than forgiveness and remaining in God’s presence. He now asks God to transform his life:
Give me back the gladness of Your rescue
and with a noble spirit sustain me. (14)

Notice that without a restoration of a right relationship with God, nothing else in our relationship with God can happen. But once that has been accomplished through God’s generous forgiveness, then we can act on God’s behalf in relation to those around us. And our teaching and example will have a positive impact on others as they too return to God:
Let me teach transgressors Your ways,
and offenders will come back to You.
O Master, open my lips,
that my mouth may tell You praise. (15, 17)

Perhaps the most radical part of this psalm—at least to the Jewish contemporaries of the psalmist—is the realization that God is not seeking blood sacrifice:
For You desire not that I should give sacrifice,
burnt offering You greet not with pleasure. (18)

Instead, God desires our broken spirits and contrite hearts:
God’s sacrifices—a broken spirit.
A broken, crushed heart God spurns not. (19)

Notice how the nature of sacrifice has moved from external action to internal condition. In these few verses the psalmist has truly laid the groundwork for Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice and the consequent indwelling of the Holy spirit in those he seek him.

 Job 25–27: Bildad interrupts Job’s disquisition and asks a profound question:
How then can a mortal be righteous before God?
 How can one born of woman be pure? (25:4)

After all, he observes, before God we are mere maggots and worms. (25:6) (Now, there’s an image to describe our sinful natures!)

Job answers his friend generously:
How you have counseled one who has no wisdom,
 and given much good advice! (26: 3)

Bildad has caused Job to realize that God is all-powerful and therefore unknowable. After all, he suggests, this is the God who causes
The pillars of heaven [to] tremble,
 and are astounded at his rebuke. (26:11)  

By definition, an all-powerful God is unknowable to mere mortals:
These [powerful acts] are indeed but the outskirts of his ways;
and how small a whisper do we hear of him!
But the thunder of his power who can understand? (26:14).  

These are crucial words to remember when we pretend to understand God, or even when we ask God, “Why?” when some disaster occurs. God is not going to tell us why, and even if he did, we would not comprehend his answer.

The insight of the previous chapter is basically an intermezzo to Job’s long speech blaming God for his plight,
As God lives, who has taken away my right,
and the Almighty, who has made my soul bitter… (27:1)

But what Job says next is what those who shake their fist at God usually do not say. He will not abandon his firm belief that despite his woes he has remained faithful to God—that what has happened to him has not been the result of any faithlessness or wickedness on his part:
I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go;
my heart does not reproach me for any of my days. (27:6) 

Because of his unrelenting faithfulness to God, Job sees his situation, as hopeless as it seems, as superior to that of the wicked who live in apparent ease and prosperity. Job has the one thing that they do not: hope—ae reminds his listeners,
For what is the hope of the godless when God cuts them off,
when God takes away their lives? (27:8)

Job remains convinced that in the end, despite all appearances to the contrary, the wicked will receive their just desserts:
Terrors overtake them like a flood;
 in the night a whirlwind carries them off.
The east wind lifts them up and they are gone;
it sweeps them out of their place. (27:20, 21).

In short, it is far, far better to live in suffering with a firm faith in God than to live in abundance but in the emptiness of a life without God. Something for us to remember as we look around at a culture that increasingly abandons God and attempts to dismantle the moral system that three millennia of Jewish and Christian belief have laid in place. As Job tells us, without God there is only emptiness.

1 Corinthians 4:1–15: Paul contrasts himself to those in the Corinthian church who have clearly come to various conclusions about Paul, Apollos and other leaders.  Paul states that while “ I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It os the Lord who judges me.” (4)  Using himself as the example he says that we cannot judge others because we do not have all the facts in the case. Only God has all the facts: “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” (5) Like the Corinthians, we have been slow to take  Paul’s sound advice to heart.

Rather than complaining, Paul advises us to rejoice in all that we in the church already have: “Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings!” (8) Almost inexplicably, he notes that those in the church are better off than the Apostles themselves: “We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.” (10).

To me this means that our basic stance as Christians is one of thanksgiving for the riches we have received in Christ.

Paul concludes his admonition by reminding the church that he is not angry. Rather, as the founding father of this particular church, they are like his children, whom a parent admonishes in love: “For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.” (15)


Psalm 51:7–12; Job 24; 1 Corinthians 3:12–23

Originally published 4/20/2015. Revised and updated 4/19/2019. (Good Friday)

Psalm 51:7–12:The poet, speaking in David”s voice, turns to the reality of his innate sinfulness: “Look, in transgression I was conceived,/ and in offense my mother spawned me.” (7) I assume that some interpreters take this verse asas one of the “proof verses” for the doctrine of original sin. But for me it is far more personal. The poet seems to be suggesting that his birth is the result of a lustful action, perhaps even rape, on the part of his father.

In any event, the psalmist sees himself as unclean and now in order to learn from God “in what is concealed make wisdom known to me” (8) he must be purified. In light of his sinfulness, he requires purification. Priests in the temple dipped hyssop branches in the animal’s blood and sprinkled it on the altar. Here, hyssop is the natural symbol of purification. And in an image remarkable in the Middle East where snow is rare, he famously asks,
Purify me with a hyssop, that I be clean.
Wash me whiter than snow. (9).

Blood (hyssop) is juxtaposed against whiteness as purity (snow). Both Leviticus (chapter 17) and the author of Hebrews make it clear that purification comes only through the shedding of blood. Of course, for us that is Christ’s blood, which was shed once and for all.

He prays for God to bring something back into his life that has been missing for a long time. The body that was consumed by the agony of sin now rejoices:
Let me hear gladness and joy,
let the nones that You crushed exult
.” (10)

In confession and forgiveness there is joy. As for the crushed bones, I don’t think he is talking about God literally breaking his bones, but rather that his realization of his sinfulness has brought him to a prostrate position before God, and now free of sin, he asks God to raise him up to exult in worship.

David recognizes that as a God of justice and truth, God cannot look directly upon him in his current sinful state. But even though God’s face may be averted, there can still be forgiveness:
Avert Your face from my offenses.
and all my misdeeds wipe away. (11)

There is first purification and expunging of sins. Then there is restoration:
A pure heart create for me, God,
and a firm spirit renew within me.

This verse and the one that follows are at the center of traditional Lutheran liturgical confession and renewal, which as a congregation we used to sing every Sunday—that powerful verse, “Create in me a clean heart, O God/ and renew a right spirit within me.” Alter translates it as “a firm spirit,” which for me conveys that sense of renewal and strength even more powerfully than “right spirit.” Confession leads to forgiveness, which leads to strength and new life. Which is exactly what Jesus Christ has accomplished for us. The only question is: in this culture of self-admiration will I be as honest as the psalmist and admit to my failings, confess them, and be restored?

Job 24: The chapter is a a marvelous evocation of all that is wrong in this fallen world, especially of its intrinsic unfairness. The wicked exploit the poor and helpless:
[They] drive away the donkey of the orphan
 they take the widow’s ox for a pledge.
They thrust the needy off the road.
the poor of the earth hide themselves. (4)

The poor and defenseless who are exploited are
Like wild asses in the desert
 they go out to their toil,
scavenging in the wasteland
 food for their young. (5)

Those who believe that humankind is somehow improving or becoming more beneficent to the oppressed would do well to reflect on this chapter that so beautifully weaves the apparent triumph of the wicked with the desperate plight of the poor and despised.
[The wicked] snatch the orphan child from the breast,
 and take as a pledge the infant of the poor. (9)

While in turn, the poor do the work that brings the wicked their very food and wealth:
“They go about naked, without clothing;” (10 a)

While though they are hungry, the poor must work for the rich:
They carry the sheaves;
between their terraces they press out oil;
 they tread the wine presses, but suffer thirst. (10b, 11)

Job views God as being indifferent to all this suffering—the question we still ask ourselves today:
From the city the dying groan,
and the throat of the wounded cries for help;
 yet God pays no attention to their prayer. (12)

The poor are the objects of crime and sexual exploitation:
The murderer rises at dusk
    to kill the poor and needy,
    and in the night is like a thief.
The eye of the adulterer also waits for the twilight,
    saying, ‘No eye will see me’;
    and he disguises his face. (14, 15)

In fact, Job claims, God is not merely indifferent, he seems to actively aid the wicked rather than the poor:
Yet God prolongs the life of the mighty by his power;
…He gives them security, and they are supported. (22, 23a).

Nevertheless, in the end, the wicked are like everyone else as they meet exactly the same fate as those they exploited:
They are exalted a little while, and then are gone;
they wither and fade like the mallow. (24)

Job seems to be asking why the wicked get all the breaks even though their lives are just as ephemeral as the righteous. A question that resonates today. Why is the broken world so damn unfair? Why does God allow this evil to happen?

1 Corinthians 3:12–23: Paul tells us that the work of the builders of the church will always be tested: “the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.” (13).  At first, Paul seems to be talking about the individuals who founded the church—the builders—but then it suddenly becomes a strikingly personal metaphor. He’s talking about each one of us as individual corporeal persons: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person.” (16, 17a) 

Because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, each of us has become a holy place: “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (17b). Accepting that simple reality should drive all our thoughts and actions. Yes, this verse certainly means lead a “clean life,” exercise, eat right and all that. That’s what I’ve heard since I was a kid. But in context here I don’t think that’s what Paul is getting at. It has far more to do with self-delusion: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.” (18) Which is Paul’s way of saying, “you know a lot less than you think you do, buddy.”

Above all, Paul warns us, do not be drawn in in by the ersatz “wisdom” and ways of the world for “wisdom of the world is foolishness with God.” (19a) And God does not cotton to fools. We will always be found out: “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” (19b) The truth of Paul’s statement has been proven again and again in the world at large and the church in particular. Paul gives really good advice: “So let no one boast about human leaders.” (21)—be that the pastor we love to hear preach or the charismatic founder of a megachurch. All of them will be tested by fire. As will each of us. We will survive, but will we really learn about God’s wisdom?